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Posts Tagged ‘How Toys Become Real

The story of a boy who receives a toy rabbit as a Christmas gift, The Velveteen Rabbit is a beloved classic by Margery Williams. I enjoyed this tale as a child and, although my reasons for enjoying it have changed, to this day I have never tired of reading it. No matter how many picture books and chapter books I outgrew and passed on in my youth, The Velveteen Rabbit is one I knew I’d always keep.

As a child, at least part of the appeal of The Velveteen Rabbit lay in its fantastical element. As its subtitle says, it’s a story about how toys become real. In that way, it’s akin to Pinocchio, another beloved literacy character who wanted to be more than a toy. And, in my earliest years, I wanted to believe that my toys could become real. Not that my imaginings were straightforward. Rather, they were a mix of various fantasies. There was the one where my toys would talk at night when I was asleep. Or the one where my toys could invoke revenge on me if I allowed them to get damaged. And the one where all my discarded toys would end up in the land of misfit toys. All of these jumbled in my head, along with the one about where my toys would become real because of my love. And if I were to qualify any of my toys under the latter stipulation, it would have to be a floppy gaudy green and pink plush dog. It’s hair is worn bare, an eye is missing, and various appendages have been taped to hold them together. For years, I slept with that doll. Today I still have it and it serves as my gravatar.

Eventually, I outgrew my belief that toys could become real. Then the appeal of The Velveteen Rabbit lay solely in its message about love: “It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” In Christian circles, the Skin Horse’s advice can be used to explain to new converts how we start out as babes in Christ but through trials and tribulations become mature adults. Amongst friends, the advice can be used to explain why differences and disagreements are to be expected. As much as we might dislike it at the time, it’s only those individuals who love every good and bad part of us who will become our best friends. In every relationship, the Skin Horse’s advice can be applied. Back in our dating years, my husband and I used to quote the Skin Horse’s various lines about being real as a sentimental but profoundly true way of expressing what growing old together would mean.

While rereading The Velveteen Rabbit this past weekend, I felt struck by a couple of critical questions. Barely two pages in, Williams rambles about how the mechanical toys felt superior to the others. They apparently had modern ideas. A jointed lion even pretended he was connected with the Government. I don’t know what I thought of these lines as a child, but now I’m sure that I completely understand them. Then there was the fact that after the boy got sick with the scarlet fever, all the toys in the nursery were to be thrown away. Immediately I wondered whatever happened to the Skin Horse? Yet these two questions didn’t diminish my enjoyment of The Velveteen Rabbit. As Williams rambled on about the expensive toys snubbed by our hero, I felt mostly empathy for how insignificant and commonplace the Velveteen Rabbit felt. With regards to the Skin Horse, I can only surmise that either he escaped the fate of being tossed or he too experienced a visit from the nursery magic fairy. Only we just hear of her visit to Velveteen Rabbit, because the book is about our hero.

The Velveteen Rabbit has been around since 1922. Since that time, it has remained a classic piece of literature through numerous adaptations in children’s theater as well as on radio, television, and the big screen. Every generation will have a chance to experience its beauty in one form or another. What are your memories of The Velveteen Rabbit?

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

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A professional writer since the age of nineteen, Margery Williams achieved lasting fame at forty-one with the 1922 publication of The Velveteen Rabbit. It has remained a classic piece of literature through numerous adaptations in children’s theater as well as on radio, television, and the big screen. As I read scant online biographies, I discovered Williams was more than a one-book author.

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

MargeryWilliamsA native of London, Margery Williams was born in England in 1881 to successful and accomplished parents. Along with her sister, she received encouragement from her father to read and use her imagination. According to Wikipedia, Williams would later recall how vividly her father described characters from various books and praised the infinite world of knowledge that lay on the printed page. The desire to read, which soon transformed into a need to write, was a legacy from her father which would last a lifetime.

His death, suggests Wikipedia, proved to be a life-changing event affected all of her future creative activity. Her books contain an undertone of sadness, about which Pennsylvania Center for the Book notes that Williams believed that beautiful stories came out of sad tales because they depicted the essence of growth and change. Indeed, hearts acquire greater humanity through pain.

When Williams was nine, her family moved to the United States, first to New York, then settling on a farm in Pennsylvania. Here, Williams attended a Convent School until she was seventeen. After graduation, although her stories to date had been rejected, Williams decided to become a writer and shortly thereafter returned to England.

While visiting her publisher in England, Williams met Francisco Bianco, who was employed as the manager of one of the book departments. The couple married in 1904. When the couple became parents of two children, Williams suspended her writing activities to focus on motherhood. For a time, the family traveled back and forth across Europe, but finally settled in Italy, her husband’s home country. There, her husband fought for the Italian army in World War I.

WRITING BACKGROUND

As alluded to above, in 1901, Williams returned to her birthplace. There, she submitted manuscripts to a London publisher. A number of her children’s stories saw print, as did her first novel The Late Returning which was published in 1902 and aimed at an adult audience. None of her adult novels sold well.

However, her ambition to make a living as an author propelled Williams. In 1914, Williams wrote a horror novel, The Thing in the Woods, about a werewolf in the Pennsylvania region. The Thing in the Woods was later republished in the US under the pseudonym “Harper Williams”.

By 1921, the family received permission to return to the United States. Pennsylvania Center for the Book states that Williams found inspiration in watching her children play with toys and animals. She began to reminiscence about her childhood. While staying at home with her children, Williams also became interested in the work of Walter de La Mare, a poet she believed wrote clearly from a child’s point of view. She so greatly admired his work that she later wrote an essay “De La Mare” in honor of him.

The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real was her first American work. While it remains her most famous, Williams did write numerous other children’s books. Her son becoming the namesake of one of them, 1925’s Poor Cecco: The Wonderful Story of a Wonderful Wooden Dog Who Was the Jolliest Toy in the House Until He Went Out to Explore the World. A return to more sober themes marks other popular works by Williams, such as The Little Wooden Doll, illustrated by her daughter. Each year, for the remaining two decades of her life, Williams produced numerous books and short stories. Most of them continued her preoccupation with toys coming to life and the ability of inanimate objects and animals to express human emotions and feelings.

However, Williams also interspersed her children’s books with novels for young adults. These all featured young people who were in one way or another alienated from mainstream society. One of those books, Winterbound, about two teenage girls who are called upon to assume adult responsibilities in caring for their young siblings, won the 1937 Newbery Medal.

In 1939, as her native Britain entered World War II, Bianco began to include patriotic themes and references to European history in her works. Her final book, 1944’s Forward Commandos!, was a story of wartime heroism, which included as one of its characters a black soldier. Wikipedia points out that acknowledging the contribution of African-Americans to the war effort was extremely rare in literary output of the time and that fact was noted in the book’s reviews.

As Forward Commandos! went on sale, Williams became ill. After three days in the hospital, died at the age of 63, having penned more than twenty titles.


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